Washington area gasoline prices were increasing at an average of 4.8 cents a gallon during the first three months of this year-an annual rate of more than 26 percent-even before the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries announced Tuesday a new 9 percent increase.
The statistic comes from the American Automobile Association, which says that as of last week the average full-service price in the Washington area was 75.7 cents a gallon for regular, 82.6 for premium and 80.5 for unleaded.
The OPEC increase goes into effect Sunday and will add 4 cents a gallon to gasoline prices here and nationally. A new federal pricing system is expected to add another 2 cents a gallon during the next few weeks.
Hundreds of angry consumers are calling a federal hot line to complain of alleged price gouging by service stations, and the U.S. Department of Energy is scrambling to field auditors to check the stations.
Under federal price control rules, each pump at each station should bear a sticker giving the maximum price that the dealer can charge for gasoline.
The calculation of maximum price is complex, and checks of area stations yesterday showed that many dealers do not have the stickers on their pumps.
In Rockville yesterday, four of six stations checked by a Washington Post reporter did not have stickers on the pumps. Few of the dealers were sure of how the calculation should be made-and one, a Sunoco dealer at 790 Hungerford Dr. near the Rockville Mall, even said there is no law setting a ceiling on prices at the pumps.
Phillips 66 dealer Fred Leigh, whose station is at 801 Hungerford Dr. across from the mall, said he didn't have stickers and didn't know what his ceiling prices were. He added that, "I'm not over my ceiling. If I'm over, then everybody in the state of Maryland is."
He said he thought this was so because his prices-74.9 for regular, 83.9 for premiumand 82.9 for unleaded-were compared with prices at other stations.
"Oh my God, it's illegal if they don't [have stickers on the pumps]," said Phillips Washington District Manager William E. Effertz. "it's mandatory. We keep telling [dealers] . . . that they have to post their price and their octane."
But Leigh said he receives his gasoline not from Phillips but from an independent middleman distributor. He said the distributor has raised prices to him 7 or 8 cents during the last two months, whereas Effertz of Phillips said that company has only raised prices to dealers by 4 or 4 1/2 cents since the beginning of the year.
"It went up three times in one week," said Leigh. "Every time I get a phone call, gas is going up.All I can do is pass it on."
Leigh said he passes on his increases penny for penny, usually without adding anything on top. "Sometimes if it goes up a cent and a half, "[I'll] go up two cents," he added.
During a reporter's visit, Leigh called his lawyer to find out his ceiling prices. After some conversation, be said to the lawyer, "You're not sure what is is either?" Leigh asked the lawyer to find out.
Customers at the six stations yesterday were reacting to the rising prices with a mixture of grim humor and a determination to conserve fuel-if not now, certainly when prices get to a dollar a gallon.
"I almost can't afford to drive," said Lee Samuels, a truck driver from Gaithersburg who was filling up his van at Leigh's station. "I just got back from Florida, but at a dollar a gallon, I'd definitely cut back." He said he would sell his van and a buy a compact.
A Montgomery College student, Chris Granger, was buying $3 worth of regular. "I've already cut back," he said. "I just don't drive as much."
Gene Lowery, a construction man from Boyds, said, "I've said all along if Nixon hadn't been so crippled back in '73 he should have gone in military and taken control of the oil wells in [the Middle East] and assure we could get it at a reasonable price."
Joyce, Chan, a management trainee at a nearby Hechinger's, said she began two years ago conserving fuel by planning her shopping trips on commutes to work and by keeping the thermostat at home at 55 during winter. "we wear a lot of sweaters," she said.
Most of the dealers are suffering from supply cutbacks, and this has caused them, they said, to raise prices to the maximum allowable, to trim their hours, or to eliminate cheap selfservice gasoline sales.
Jack Dodson, whose family runs a Texaco station at 369 Hungerfold Dr., said he has taken all three of these actions because of a 55 percent cutback in supplies.
He said that revenues have dropped $10,000 a month at the station and another that the family runs not far away.
"Demand is the same," he said "so why not take [price] to your full margin? [the maximum allowed by DOE] . . . PEOPLE WILL DRIVE NO MATTER WHAT YOU CHARGE."
THERE ARE NO PRICE STICKERS ON HIS PUMPS, SAID DODSON, BUT HE HAS CAREFULLY CALCULATED HIS MAXIMUM PRICES AND IS RIGHT ON THEM-76.2 REGULAR, 81.9 PREMIUM, 80.2 UNLEADED, AND 71.9 FOR DIESEL, A POPULAR NEW PRODUCT AT THE STATION.
DODSON HAS STAGGERED THE HOURS AT HIS STATION, PUTTING BLACK PLASTIC OVER THE PUMPS, SAID DODSON, BUT HE HAS CAREFULLY CALCULATED HIS MAXIMUM PRICES AND IS RIGHT ON THEM-76.2 REGULAR, 81.9 PREMIUM, 80.2 UNLEADED, AND 71.9 FOR DIESEL, A POPULAR NEW PRODUCT AT THE STATION.
DODSON HAS STAGGERED THE HOURS AT HIS STATION, PUTTING BLACK PLASTIC OVER THE PUMPS FROM 1 P.M. TO 5 P.M. AND REFUSING TO SELL GASOLINE DURING THAT TIME.
EXXON DEALER HERBERT S. HOLLANDER AT 510 HUNGERFOLD DR., HAD NO STICKERS ON HIS PUMPS YESTERDAY MORNING, BUT BEGAN PUTTING THEM ON AFTER A REPORTER ASKED ABOUT THEM.
HOLLANDER SAID HE WAS "PRETTY SURE" HIS PRICE WERE AT HIS LEGAL CEILING OR WITHIN HALF A CENT BECAUSE HE HAD CHECKED PRICES DOWN THE STREET AT ANOTHER EXXON.
"I MAY HAVE TO RECALCULATE," HE SAID.
"I MAY HAVE TO RECALCULATE," HE SAID. "I DON'T WANT TO TAKE A CHANCE BECAUSE I UNDERSTAND THEY [FEDERAL OFFICIALS] HAVE SPOTTERS OUT."
HOLLANDER BOUGHT HIS DEALERSHIP ONLY EIGHT MONTHS AGO AND BUILT UP HIS GASOLINE SALES VOLUME DRAMATICALLY TO 80,000 GALLONS A MONTH. SINCE A PREVIOUS OWNER SOLD ONLY 48,000 GALLONS IN MARCH A YEAR AGO, HOLLANDER'S SUPPLIES HAVE BEEN CUT BACK TO THAT FIGURE FOR THIS MARCH UNDER THE FEDERAL ALLOCATION RULES.
HOLLANDER STILL HAS SELF-SERVE PUMPS, BUT THEY'RE ONLY A PENNY UNDER HIS FULL SERVE PRICES. REGULAR LEADED GAS AT HIS SELF-SERVICE PUMP COST 77.9 CENTS A GALLON YESTERDAY.
PRICES AMONG THE SIX STATIONS CHECKED WERE LOWEST YESTERDAY AT THE CROWN STATION AT 260 NORTH WASHINGTON ST.-69.9 REGULAR, 76.4 PREMIUM AND 74.9 UNLEADED.
FURTHERMORE, SHIFT MANAGER PARRY GRUBB SAID THE STATION IS OPEN 24 HOURS AND IS PUMPING ENORMOUS QUANTITIES OF GASOLINE, MORE THAN EVER.
"IT'S UNBELIEVABLE ," HE SAID. "WE'VE PUMPING ALMOST 10,000 GALLONS A DAY . . . MOST PEOPLE ARE TOPPING OFF THEIR TANKS. YESTERDAY WE HAD A VAN WITH AN 18 TO 20 GALLON TANK, HE ONLY TOOK $1.80."
THIS STATION IS SUPPLIED BY CROWN CENTRAL PETROLEUM CO. OF BALTIMORE, A MID-SIZED INDEPENDENT REFINER THAT HAS PUSHED THE FULL-SERVE, GAS-AND-GO CONCEPT IN ITS STATIONS FOR YEARS.
THE CROWNS STATION HAD THE PRICE STICKERS ON ITS PUMPS AS REQUIRED BY FEDERAL LAW, AND SO DID ANOTHER STATION CHECKED YESTERDAY, HICKMAN'S EXXON AT 200 N. WASHINGTON ST.
AT THE SUNOCO STATION AT 790 HUNGERFORD DR., CODEALERS JACK AND JOE LEIGH (BROTHERS OF FRED LEIGH, WHO RUNS THE PHILLIPS ACROSS THE STREET), HAD NO STICKERS ON THEIR PUMPS YESTERDAY.
"THERE'S NO CEILING NOW," SAID JACK LEIGH, EXPLAINING WHY HE THINKS THERE IS NO NEED FOR STICKERS ON HIS PUMPS. "YOU CAN RAISE IT AS HIGH AS YOU WANT, BUT YOU DON'T BECAUSE YOU WANT TO STAT COMPETITIVE."
ACCORDING TO DOE officials, this is wrong.
The American Automobile Association reports that full-service gasoline prices in the WASHINGTON AREA WENT UP 4.8 CENTS A GALLON, OR AN UNPRECEDENTED 6.6 PERCENT, DURING THE FIRST QUARTER 6.6 PERCENT, DURING THE FIRST QUARTER THIS YEAR-MORE THAN AN ANNUAL 26 PERCENT INCREASE. SELF-SERVICE PRICES WENT UP EVEN MORE-7.4 PERCENT DURING THE QUARTER.
THE AAA said 74 percent of area stations are not curtailing weekday hours and 66 percent plan to remain open Sundays through the end of the month.